Why you shouldn’t make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism

gse_multipart24046by Stephen Law


I recently wrote a blog post titled “Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism” [1] in which I suggest that it is a strategic mistake for secular humanists (such as myself) to make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism, so that signing up to naturalism is a requirement, rather than just an option.

Massimo Pigliucci was kind enough to write a response to my post in this magazine last week [2]. Massimo disagrees with my view that naturalism should not be included as a tenet of secular humanism. Here I respond to his response.

Don’t get me wrong: naturalism might be true. Secular humanists like Massimo should be free both to embrace and argue for naturalism if they wish. Many do. Personally, I’m agnostic about naturalism (though I lean towards it). I just don’t think naturalism should be built into secular humanism as a tenet in such a way that anyone who rejects, or is even just agnostic, about naturalism is thereby excluded from the secular humanist club. And I’d still think that even if I happened to be as committed to naturalism as is Massimo.

How do I characterise “secular humanism”?

In my book Humanism: A Very Short Introduction [3], I sketch secular humanism (or, as we say in the UK, humanism) like so:

(1) Humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason.

(2) Humanists are atheists. They do not sign up to belief in a god or gods.

(3) Humanists suppose that this is very probably the only life we have.

(4) Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.

(5) Humanists emphasize our individual moral autonomy and responsibility.

(6) Humanists are secularists in the sense that they favor an open, democratic society and believe the State should take a neutral stance on religion.

(7) Humanists believe that we can enjoy significant, meaningful lives even if there is no God, and whether or not we happen to be religious.

Notice I make no mention of naturalism in characterizing secular humanism. And that’s deliberate, as I explain in the book. I certainly don’t think we should add as a further tenet:

(8) Humanists sign up to naturalism.

Now some may think (8) is rendered redundant by my (2). Surely, atheism entails naturalism, right?

No. Atheist aren’t necessarily wedded to naturalism. Indeed, many non-theists reject naturalism (a PhilPapers survey of professional philosophers shows that while less than 15% of philosophers are theists, less than 50% sign up to naturalism: so over a third are neither theists nor naturalists).

There are various reasons why many philosophers remain less than fully convinced by naturalism. Classic philosophical objections to naturalism tend to focus on phenomena such as consciousness, moral value, and mathematical truth. Take mathematical truth. Many mathematicians are mathematical Platonists. They suppose mathematical assertions such as “2 + 2 = 4” are made true by non-natural, mathematical facts. Similarly, there are philosophers who suppose that moral claims are made true by non-natural moral facts, and also philosophers who suppose that consciousness exists, but not as part of the natural world. All these philosophers reject naturalism.

Others, even if not convinced that naturalism is false, are at least undecided about whether it is true. They might lean towards naturalism, say, but remain non-committal given their awareness of the range and depth of objections raised against naturalism and the complexities involved in dealing with them effectively. Such philosophers can sign up to principles (1)-(7) above and so qualify as “secular humanists” as I characterize the term. But were we to add (8), any such philosopher would automatically be excluded.

So here’s my first worry about adding (8): we will inevitably exclude a good many otherwise sympathetic individuals who are committed to the other secular humanist principles (1)-(7), which are it seems to me, the principles that really matter (I’ll expand on this later). Why define “secular humanism” so as to exclude someone who happens to think “2 + 2 = 4” is made true by a non-natural, mathematical fact?

I also suggested in my blog post that defining “secular humanism” so that it entails (philosophical) naturalism creates an unnecessary hostage to fortune. If secular humanism entails naturalism, then all critics need do to refute secular humanism is refute naturalism. And there is, as I say, a cupboardful of stock philosophical objections to naturalism on which those critics can now draw (objections raised by pressing questions such as: “How can the naturalist world view accommodate consciousness, or mathematical truth, or moral value?”).

Even if none of these objections actually is fatal to naturalism, dealing with them is obviously a very complex matter, far too complex to allow the objections to be properly dealt with within, say, the context of a public debate with a religious apologist. And so, by making naturalism a tenet of secular humanism, we allow such religious apologist to at the very least get us secular humanists needlessly bogged down in that sort of irrelevant philosophical sideshow. Many in the audience to such a debate are likely to conclude: “Hmm, well secular humanism certainly does seem to face some very significant objections here — objections that the secular humanist has struggled to deal with.”

In my opinion, in response to the Christian apologist’s standard debate-tactic question: “But how does your atheistic, naturalistic worldview accommodate consciousness, and mathematical truth, and moral value?” we secular humanists should not attempt to defend naturalism, but just shrug and say: “Straw man fallacy. Even if your objections successfully establish that naturalism is false, that leaves both my atheism and my secular humanism entirely unscathed. What are your arguments against atheism and secular humanism?”

The moral is: don’t get bogged in unnecessary battles that you might conceivably lose, and that you certainly don’t need to win, in order successfully to defend atheism and secular humanism.

An aside: woo skepticism

I suspect that what most of those non-philosophers within the skeptical community who describe themselves as naturalists really mean by “naturalism” something like rejection of belief in woo — in fairies, ghosts, angels, gods, psychic powers and other supernatural beings and phenomena. Now of course, a majority of professional philosophers who reject or are at least undecided about “naturalism” are probably no less skeptical about woo. What philosophers mean by “naturalism” is not equivalent to rejection of belief in such spooky stuff. We would be well-advised to distinguish philosophical naturalism, on the one hand, and woo-sceptic naturalism on the other.

So should we define secular humanism so that it at least requires, if not philosophical naturalism, then at least woo-sceptic naturalism? Actually, I’m not sure I’d recommend even that. Suppose it turns out that some people really do have psychic powers. Suppose that’s scientifically established. Would such a discovery establish that secular humanism is false? That strikes me as an odd conclusion to draw. Of course many secular humanists would be mightily surprised if it turned out that psychic powers are real (and also non-natural). But I don’t think such a discovery would spell doom for secular humanism per se, because I think secular humanism’s proper focus is elsewhere.

Massimo’s disagreement

So now I turn to Massimo’s disagreement with me. His view is that naturalism should be included as a tenet of secular humanism, and that this is unproblematic so long as “naturalism” is understood correctly. Massimo suggests that “what secular humanists mean by ‘naturalism’ is actually a rather ‘thin’ concept, one that [philosophers] could (indeed should) happily subscribe to.”

Massimo correctly rejects the thought that naturalism = physicalism, where physicalism (as Massimo characterizes it) is “the idea that everything that exists is made of matter.” Numbers and moral values obviously aren’t made of matter, so they can’t be accommodated by physicalism, thus understood.

But naturalism, as Massimo understands the term, is a much weaker thesis than physicalism. Though he does not spell it out for us, Massimo’s conception of naturalism seems to be (something along the lines) that everything there is can be accommodated entirely within the causally-ordered universe. Massimo suggests that, armed with this less austere conception of what counts as “natural,” mathematical objects and concepts can now be accommodated. He supposes the same is likely to be true of minds and moral values “so long as one doesn’t think that mathematical objects, minds or moral values somehow violate the laws of nature and/or originate from a deity of some sort.”

Now maybe Massimo is right. Perhaps, given his less austere conception of what is to count as “natural,” naturalism can indeed accommodate minds, morals, and maths. But my point remains. Whether or not naturalism can accommodate these things, why should we be obliged, as secular humanists, to take a position on this matter? No doubt naturalism can also accommodate ice cream, Paris, and The Wiggles, but I see no reason why we, as secular humanists, should stake our position on that being the case. And even if Massimo is himself convinced that naturalism, thus understood, can accommodate minds, maths, and morals, the fact remains that many professional philosophers, me included, remain unconvinced. So my concern remains: is it wise for us, as secular humanists, to be staking our position on issues that are, at the very least, controversial?

I grant that the answer to this question would clearly be “yes” if it was important that naturalism (Massimo’s preferred variety) be included in the secular humanist portfolio of commitments. After all, non-belief in God is also included in that portfolio of commitments, and that too is at least somewhat controversial. Yet, as Massimo points out, I don’t suggest we drop non-belief in God. So why don’t I advise we also drop that commitment as an unnecessary hostage to fortune?

Because, as a campaigning organization dedicated among other things to giving a voice to non-believers and fighting for their rights, it’s appropriate that a secular humanist organization should include non-belief among its tenets. There is a similarly good reason for including secularism among the tenets of secular humanism. But now why is it important to include amongst the tenets of secular humanism a commitment to the belief that philosophical naturalism (appropriately understood) can accommodate mathematical facts? It very obviously isn’t important. That issue is a largely irrelevant sideshow so far as secular humanism is concerned. Let’s drop the commitment as both an unnecessary hostage to fortune and obstacle to recruitment.

Massimo says (about committing secular humanism to naturalism):

And if, as Law writes, “critics will rub their hands together with glee knowing we have just provided them with a cupboard full of stock philosophical objections,” then secular humanists should equally be worried about their rejection of, say, belief in gods, since there too they may one day be proven wrong (as unlikely as I think that is). Well, you don’t get to stake any interesting position if you don’t run the risk of being wrong, so I’ll bite the bullet.

Of course, given Massimo is a convinced naturalist, he is entirely free as a secular humanist to bite the bullet and commit to naturalism. What I’m objecting to is the suggestion that, as secular humanists, we are required to bite the same bullet and commit to naturalism. I can see no justification for that requirement.

Here’s a final bit of clarification from me. Actually, I condensed the seven-point characterization from my book a little for the blog post. In the book, what (2) actually says is this:

(2) Humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic. They are skeptical about the claim that there exists a god or gods. They are also skeptical about angels, demons, and other supernatural beings.

Now perhaps some readers are thinking, “Ah, well expanded in that way, (2) now expresses what I mean by naturalism. What I mean by ‘naturalism’ is rejection of belief in such supernatural beings. So it turns out my kind of naturalism doesn’t need adding to (1)-(7); it is, in effect, already included in the unpacked version of (2).”

However, I don’t think Massimo can say this. That’s because Massimo seems to want to commit secular humanists to a stronger, philosophical form of naturalism that has something to say, not just about gods, angels, and demons, but also about minds, morals, and maths.

Massimo says that different theories allowing for the existence of minds, mathematical truths, and moral values can easily

fall within the broad umbrella of naturalism — so long as one doesn’t think that mathematical objects, minds or moral values somehow violate the laws of nature and/or originate from a deity… a position I would hope, that no secular humanist ought to hold onto.

But why should a secular humanist be obliged, by virtue of their secular humanism, to embrace a position on such questions as whether or not mathematical objects violate the laws of nature? What’s that got to do with secular humanism? Not much, I think.

True, Massimo’s conception of naturalism is much thinner than a crude, full-blown physicalism. Massimo says,

naturalism really is to be contrasted with supernaturalism, setting aside delightfully intricate, but largely beside the point, philosophical debates. And it certainly ought to be one of the tenets of secular humanism that one rejects the supernatural. Which makes one, therefore, a naturalist.

But while Massimo makes his conception of naturalism sound pretty thin (for it’s just rejection of the “supernatural”), it’s still not thin enough. Not if he thinks secular humanists should be required to sign up to it. For as we saw above, Massimo’s version of rejecting the “supernatural” involves more than just rejecting gods, angels, demons, and other supernatural folk. It also involves signing up to controversial philosophical theses regarding minds, morals, and maths that, it seems to me, are of little direct concern to secular humanism per se.

In short, Massimo seems to want to commit us secular humanists to a brand of philosophical naturalism that does still require that we embrace controversial verdicts in delightfully intricate philosophical debates that are largely beside the point. Which is what I’m warning against.

A “family resemblance”concept?

But perhaps I have misunderstood and Massimo is suggesting not that signing up to naturalism be a requirement, but merely that it be on the list of characteristics that can qualify someone as a secular humanist.

Suppose for example that secular humanism is a “family resemblance” [4] concept. For example, suppose we stipulate that to qualify as a “secular humanist” one must possess at least three of six listed characteristics, one of which is a commitment to naturalism. Then that commitment would not be a requirement (you would still qualify as a secular humanist if you weren’t a naturalist but did tick three of the other five remaining boxes), but it could still contribute to qualifying someone as a secular humanist. A commitment to naturalism would still be built into the concept of secular humanism.

The above suggestion is less objectionable, I think, because it does deal with one of my concerns: signing up to naturalism is no longer a requirement.

However, I see no good reason to include a commitment to naturalism even on such a “family resemblance” list, given (i) the somewhat controversial character of even Massimo’s version of naturalism plus the fact that whether or not naturalism can accommodate e.g. mathematical objects/truths is, so far as secular humanism is concerned, surely largely beside the point, and (ii) the fact that religious apologists are going to seize on naturalism’s presence on that list and use it is a rhetorical bludgeon with which to cream us in debates.


Stephen Law is Provost of Centre for Inquiry UK and Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. His books include The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking and The Complete Philosophy Files (for children).

[1] Secular Humanism: DON’T define it as requiring naturalism, by S. Law, 9 September 2014.

[2] Stephen Law on humanism and naturalism, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 19 September 2014.

[3] Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, by S. Law.

[4] The concept of family resemblance.

110 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism

  1. Hi DM,

    With regard to trees, there is the really existing external tree and there are thoughts about the tree. Now consider “fear”. The thought, the brain state *is* the fear (it is not merely a thought about some abstract platonically existing “fear” which is the real “fear”). Now consider “moral value”. I assert that the thought, the brain state *is* the moral value. The thought is not just *about* an abstract platonically existing “moral value”, but the thought *is* the moral value.

    People who are repeatedly telling me that this is wrong are just assuming moral realism, and the reality of “moral values” distinct from brain states to which the thought then refers. If people want to argue for that then go ahead. But it’s not at all “obvious” that this is true and that my stance is “clearly” an error.

    Hi Robin,

    You can’t just say it and assume that it is true unless someone can refute it.

    Fair point, but many have told me that I’m “clearly” wrong and am making a simple category error that has already been pointed out to me repeatedly. That claim seems to be just assuming moral realism (which seems bizarre, given that moral realism is pretty nonsensical, in that no-one can answer the most basic questions about that moral realism is even supposed to mean).

    And so this must mean that a Turing Machine can have moral values …

    I accept that a functionally equivalent replica of a human brain would have moral values, yes. Further, I don’t see any problem with multiple realisibility, which (as I’ve pointed out a few times) holds even within physics.

    Hi Aravis,

    I perhaps have more faith in humanity than you do. Anchoring ethics in the value judgements of humanity is indeed “robust”. Where would you rather anchor them? Reason can inform but cannot, by itself, prescribe; you cannot get a moral value from any amount of reasoning alone; you always need some human judgement in there, though of course that judgement can be hugely influenced by the reasoning. Personally, I think that humans in Western, liberal, democratic nations can be proud of the moral systems that we have developed.

    … these folks essentially agree with the theists that these robust conceptions are only possible on theistic grounds.

    Plato (Euthyphro) torpedoed that idea.

    Hi Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn,

    Just because there are no red or green squiggly lines under any of the words doesn’t mean that the sentence makes sense.

    Well said! (And I support your contention that this naturalism/supernaturalism discussion is weird, absent an agreed definition of the distinction.)

    Hi labnut,

    The conduct of New Atheists has damaged the image of the atheist movement. Polls show this quite clearly.

    No they don’t. The bad image of atheists long pre-dates “New Atheism” (apostasy has always been deprecated by the religious, who fear the absence of faith since faith is all they have). Polls show the situation improving, post the New Atheists.


  2. @SciScal

    So, to make this explicit, you are essentially saying that someone who rejects even the ‘thin’ version of Naturalism (as opposed to being agnostic about it or denying the possibility of metaphysical knowledge), is adopting some sort of Theism or Deism?

    If so, then I agree, although I have been told off before for saying so by those who would have some sort of half way house (like Neutral Monism)..


  3. Robin, yes, that’s what I’m saying. I can’t imagine why anyone would reject thin-naturalism unless one embraced some version of supernaturalism. Which would put him at odds with secular humanism.


  4. Coel:

    A robust conception of human dignity and inviolability requires a robust conception of normativity. It’s the “oughts” and “ought nots” and our willingness to be persuaded by and honor them that create a society, in which people are treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. (The Western culture that you rightly praise is built upon precisely such a robust conception, with Kant’s account of the source of our dignity and inviolability being perhaps the most characteristic.)

    It *may* be the case that we can provide an account of this robust normativity via an emotivist, sentimentalist, or other subjectivist account — certainly Hume thought that we could. If so, that’s terrific. But we may not, in which case we turn to moral realist accounts, like Kant’s, Mill’s, and the myriad variations thereupon. What we can’t do, of course, is simply chuck normativity — not simply because it renders any robust account of human dignity and inviolability impossible (tough luck, you might say), but because if we do so, our moral theories no longer save the phenomena, which is what every theory ought to do.

    It is true, of course, that if one holds to the standard empiricist division of knowledge into either the tautological analytic a priori and the substantive synthetic a posteriori, then theorizing of this second sort — the realist sort — is not going to fit — moral knowledge, ultimately, is going to be synthetic a priori. And it is also true, of course, that no one has been able to give an adequate account of the synthetic a priori — although there are a number of very good attempts to do so, which, to my mind, have gotten quite far. (Lawrence Bonjour and Jerrold Katz have both done excellent work in this regard (links at the end of this comment)).

    Still, I don’t see why this should deter us. For one thing, I don’t believe that every foundational question need be answered in order to make progress on questions like these. And for another, I don’t see why the synthetic a priori, per se, need be inconsistent with naturalism, which is not an epistemic thesis, but an ontological one.

    http://www.amazon.com/Defense-Pure-Reason-Rationalist-Justification/dp/0521592364 and http://www.amazon.com/Realistic-Rationalism-Representation-Mind-Jerrold/dp/0262611511/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1411485498&sr=1-3&keywords=jerrold+katz)


  5. Hi Coel,

    Fair point, but many have told me that I’m “clearly” wrong and am making a simple category error that has already been pointed out to me repeatedly. That claim seems to be just assuming moral realism…

    Claiming that you make a category error in your argument seems somewhat orthogonal to the general question of whether realism or anti-realism makes best sense of morality.

    I think the reluctance to engage you further on this matter comes at least in part from the way you are framing the discussion.

    Let me try an analogy by claiming:

    “Truth is certainly material. Since what else is truth than a thought. And what else is a thought than a material pattern in the brain.”

    To me what I just wrote is so convoluted that it is barely coherent. Over more I am certainly making a category error here. Yet my phrasing is also so vague and touches on quite complex and controversial topics that it will require some unpacking to show me exactly where I am wrong.
    The mere fact that I am making such sweeping claims might also be seen as a signal that I am not terribly interested in the discussion in the first place and further that I am unaware of the contemporary discussion on truth theories. So where would one even start in addressing my statement?

    What would you make of my above claim?


  6. 1. I must disagree with Labnut’s “what’s wrong with secular humanism” comment. Contra Point 2, SH does not have a desire to “attack religion.” It does have the desire to keep religion out of places in the public sphere it ought not to be; big difference. Contra Point 3, SH does have a strong moral philosophy, overall. It may disagree with certain religions on certain particular moral issues, tis true; within itself, it may disagree on a particular issue, such as details of a stance on reproductive choice. And? So do different religious traditions, on that issue. Point 4 is definitely wrong. Point 5, as a summation, is also wrong.

    2. To riff on Massimo, there’s no “hostages.” A positive moral/ethical system that’s nontheistic, whether agnostic or atheist, naturally entails this “thin naturalism.” Re the issue of SH being just atheists, or also agnostics, and getting back to Hume, one “acts as if” in much of life. Agnostics generally “act as if” there are no deities, and also no other metaphysical entities, i.e., no karma or reincarnation; in short, they “act as if” thin naturalists. Alexander’s comments are along a similar line.

    3. Per EJ, ethics of a naturalistic system derive from nature. This is at the core of Labnut’s writing, and why we refer to secular humanism. No intervention shapes our moral philosophizing; nor, per EJ and deists, did any “clockwork deity” craft just the right mechanism for us to automatically move to a certain moral philosophy. And, again, different religious traditions, or subtraditions within a tradition, disagree on moral issues. This naturalist SHer knows the seeming answer for that; see sentences above. This is why, as Massimo has stressed more than once elsewhere, and as I have on my blog, SH in general has a responsibility for making sure that evolutionary psychologists don’t make unsubstantiated, overarching claims. Beyond that, SH in general must also make sure that baselines of ev psych, like the EEA, have adequate scientific grounding. (Many of them don’t, starting with the EEA.) Ev psych, done correctly, with adequate grounding AND with suitably restrained claims, is already, along with ethology, an important source for determining secularist ethics. (Ev psych also needs to take into account epigenetic issues.) Some of my thoughts on Ev Psych are gathered together here: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/12/two-wrongs-definitely-dont-make-right_1.html

    3A. That said, as we all know, science is provisional. Well-done ev psych, ethology, and cognitive science and related modern work will (back to Point 1) never give us final answers to every moral issue. What they can do is give us better answers, with more rigor, in a naturalistic frame, with more research.

    4. I’d modify Law’s Point 2. I’d also, per earlier comment about different schools of ethics — and now trotting in libertarianism — modify Point 5 in some way to connect this to society. A Randian certainly believes he is morally autonomous — to the extreme. And, remind the religious here that Point 5 is why we have secular humanism, not just humanism.

    500 words!


  7. Ah, well I think one of us is equivocating.

    So I can get a clearer Idea of where you are coming from, Massimo, let me ask you a question. Consider someone who takes this position: they are a full blown Platonist, in the sense that they actually buy into the Theory of Forms and the Cave analogy. They suppose the world we experience is a mere shadowy copy of the true reality which is changeless and eternal. This reality contains entities – the Forms, of which the particulars we experience are mere shadows. This person describes himself as an atheist – there are no Gods, he says, but Plato’s Forms certainly are real, while the world we experience and to which observation has access is illusion: nothing in it is real.

    Can what this person believes be accommodated within what you mean by ‘naturalism’? Is this person an ‘atheist’, as you understand the term?


  8. Stephen, no, I don’t think strong Platonism is compatible with naturalism. But I also don’t know of any serious philosopher of mathematics who holds that position, so it seems to be irrelevant to the discussion at hand. I never claimed that all forms of Platonism are compatible with naturalism, but see Ladyman & Ross’ discussion of why mathematical Platonism can definitely be accommodated into a naturalist ontology, as long as one is willing to go beyond Quine’s “desert” variety.


  9. Hi Aravis,

    There have long been complaints (back to Nietzsche and others) that without belief in God morality will collapse and society will degenerate; without belief in dualistic free will, morality and society will go to the dogs; that if we accept that humans evolved from animals rather than being God’s special creation, that people will behave like animals and that society will collapse.

    The suggestion that, without moral realism and an external normativity telling humans what they “ought” to do, that morals and society will suffer, seems to me just another of these warnings.

    The truth is roughly the opposite, that most of us judge that as society has got less theistic and more secular, and more about humans working things out for ourselves, that morals have improved.

    Part of the explanation (it seems to me) is that all such things — gods, dualism, creationism, moral realism — are post-hoc rationalisations of human experience, rather than being actual underpinnings of morality. Moral realism is just hankering after a God to tell you what to do but without the god.

    I am entirely confident that society will do just fine — indeed better — without theism, dualism and moral realism, and would suggest that the evidence supports that. Those beliefs are steadily declining in Europe (the USA lags a bit behind in this trend), and yet European morals and society steadily improve (in most people’s opinion).

    What we can’t do, of course, is simply chuck normativity… because if we do so, our moral theories no longer save the phenomena, …

    If the “moral theories” are simply rationalisations then who cares? These theoretical ideas are commentaries about humans, rather than being actual foundations of human morals. Humans will not stop having moral values and will not stop being moral advocates — those are part of our very nature. Moral advocacy by humans is all the normativity we actually have and all the normativity we need.

    Hi miramaxime,

    What would you make of my above claim?

    I’d suggest that “truth” is about the correspondence of a statement to reality, and that it is independent of human opinion. Truth is thus not “a thought”. In contrast, I am asserting that a moral value really is the thought, being a feeling or opinion (and thus that it is a pattern of physical stuff in the brain).

    You suggest that I’m phrasing this badly. OK, maybe I am. How do you suggest that I phrase it?


  10. Coel wrote:

    “I am entirely confident that society will do just fine — indeed better — without theism, dualism and moral realism.”


    Your lumping of these three things together — theism, dualism, and moral realism — suggests that you either barely read my post or are simply ignoring all the relevant parts of it. It is pretty disheartening to go to the trouble to carefully construct arguments, look up and provide links to sources, and have your interlocutor just ignore most of what you’ve said.

    Society hasn’t “done just fine” without moral realism. All the things that you praise about Western, *secular* society, are based on moral realist conceptions of normativity. Hence my point about Kant’s account of human dignity and inviolability. This has nothing to do with either theism or dualism. The fact is, whether you like it or not, that all the liberal democratic systems of government that Westerners live under are based, largely, on conceptions of natural right that presuppose robust conceptions of human dignity and inviolability that themselves presuppose moral realist conceptions of normativity. Certainly, John Locke frames this in theistic terms, but he also clearly believes that the arguments can be made without theistic commitments. Certainly Kant thought so.


  11. Stephen Law asked Massimo, “Can what this person believes be accommodated within what you mean by ‘naturalism’? Is this person an ‘atheist’, as you understand the term?”

    Massimo seems to have answered “No,” upthread in his response to Robin: “Robin, yes, that’s what I’m saying. I can’t imagine why anyone would reject thin-naturalism unless one embraced some version of supernaturalism. Which would put him at odds with secular humanism.”

    And so, it would seem that Massimo is stipulating another sign up for secular humanism, namely, subscribing to some form of thin naturalism. I expect he will correct me if I misunderstand.


  12. Thomas, I’m not stipulating anything. I’m saying that any non-naturalistic belief doesn’t seat well with secular humanism – not just belief in gods. So, it depends on how the Platonist sees his Platonism: naturalistically? Good. Supernaturalistically? Not so good.


  13. Yes, Massimo, but it seems your response to Robin regarding the implications of thin naturalism is undercut by use of a “logical rigor” here that you distance yourself from in your original post regarding Law’s sign up’s and naturalism. It is not clear from your remark to Robin whether you are maintaining that atheism necessarily entails thin naturalism.


  14. Thomas, I guess I’m not sure what the problem is. To reiterate and hopefully clarify: I think that secular humanism is a philosophy based on a thin version of naturalism, on which it relies for everything from metaphysical statements (no gods, no supernatural) to ethical ones (ethics isn’t god-given). Platonism can be accommodated within this thin conception of naturalism as long as the Platonist does not appeal to clearly supernatural notions (don’t forget that Plato himself did: he was talking about the Demiurge, for instance).


  15. kelskye, “Are there any ontological commitments needed to adopt a humanist approach to ethical concerns?”

    A great deal of the human experience related to our ethical actions and the perception of pain and pleasure is sensorial. Without the senses seems difficult to discern what is desirable and undesirable, pleasant and painful. Whether the sensorial topic related to ethical concerns is ontological, or could be, depends on cultural and social factors. Right now we are seeing the devastating situation in Middle East, for an external observer such disaster should be stopped immediately. But in the area the different factions, nations and churches try to defend their positions ending it in a big mess.

    Though the pain is equally felt by the affected, is impossible to set an ontology commitment to stop the devastation. I’m skeptical about the ontological commitments regarding human affairs, specially when the topic becomes dramatic and emotions come into play. In short, is easier to set an ontological commitment when the society is shielded against asymmetries but achieving such society is, to date, utopic.


  16. I suppose the question then is whether in your mind there is a meaningful distinction between secular humanism and naturalistic humanism. It would seem there isn’t. But I am sensitive to Robin’s concerns about where agnostics fit into these scenarios.


  17. Hi Massimo

    Thanks again – I think we may be approaching exhaustion on this topic but let’s have another go at seeing if we can convince each other. You said:

    ‘Stephen, no, I don’t think strong Platonism is compatible with naturalism. But I also don’t know of any serious philosopher of mathematics who holds that position, so it seems to be irrelevant to the discussion at hand.’

    Sure – I just wanted to get clear about how elastic the boundaries of your concept of naturalism are. Not nearly elastic enough to accommodate strong Platonism, then. Good – it’s a notion with some substance to it.

    BUT, on the other hand, you seem to equivocate on whether naturalism extends beyond strong atheism (no gods). On the one hand you say:

    ‘QUOTING ME: “Naturalism entails atheism but not vice versa”

    I beg to differ. Atheism certainly entails the sort of “thin” naturalism I am advocating.’

    This makes it sound like you suppose atheism is logically equivalent to naturalism. Each entails the other. As I said before, I have no problem with making naturalism (or to be precise atheism-or-agnosticism) a tenet of secular humanism if it’s just equivalent to atheism.

    However, at the same time you seem to want to make naturalism stronger than atheism. You want to make it say something about the nature of mathematical, moral, and mental facts (and not just that they’re not created by God etc.). But atheism – even strong atheism (no gods) – does not directly entail anything about such facts (other than that they’re not God-related, of course). It doesn’t even entail that strong Platonism is false, for example, while your brand of naturalism does.

    So it seems that by embracing naturalism you ARE embracing more than is entailed by atheism.

    So – is naturalism equivalent to atheism or not? If it is, then I’ve little problem with making it a tenet of SH. But if it isn’t, then what naturalism involves starts to look controversial even for non-theists.

    Now I know that, according to you, your brand of naturalism isn’t controversial for non-theists. Yet around 1/3 of non-theist philosophers fail to sign up to naturalism even when it’s clear to them that it doesn’t mean physicalism (physicalism is a separate category to naturalism on that philpapers survey).

    So now can you spell out what your brand of naturalism amounts to in such a way that they’re all going to say “Oh right, THAT’S what YOU mean by naturalism” and agree with you? Are they all going to agree, in particular, that a Ross/Ladyman style metaphysics can fully accommodate morals, maths, and minds, assuming they’re non-theists? I rather doubt it. Yet that’s what you’re now banking on.

    Why bank on it? It’s an irrelevant philosophical sideshow so far as most secular humanists are concerned, who are primarily concerned with giving voice to non-religious, fighting for secularism, correcting myths about non-religious being amoral degenerates who strip life of meaning, poisonous theocracies, etc. Who cares whether they agree with metaphysical theorizing of Ladyman and Ross re. the nature of mathematical truth?

    Just so we are clear though, you might bring me round to your kind of naturalism. You may be better informed than I, and have good arguments that will convince me (See? I’m trying to be conciliatory!). My point is, this is still besides the point. You still shouldn’t make naturalism a tenet of secular humanism. For the reason I just gave.

    P.S. I am tired so I hope this makes sense.


  18. Right, I don’t think there is a difference. As for agnosticism, I always thought it a strange position: if it means (as the etymology implies) that people’s priors are really 50-50, I don’t see how that can be construed as a reasonable position. It means that one is inclined to discard the possibility of gods and supernatural, but is of course open to revision, then I don’t see how it is different from (reasonable) atheism.


  19. Hi Stephen Law, I realize you are busy and you’ve had a lot to reply to, but I see that you have still not replied to a point I made which addresses the problems of “hostage to fortune” and the many flavors of naturalism (which people may not know or want to ascribe to).

    Why can’t we just say that “humanists USUALLY ascribe to some form of naturalism”?

    The “usually” treats naturalism the same way you treated moral value, and then would let any defender off the hook from a theist trying to use that as a target to attack all of secular humanism. And in essence isn’t this the argument you have made here, that some but not all would ascribe to some form of naturalism?


  20. I am probably missing something by not being trained in philosophy and with limited reading about humanism,but isn’t all humanism secular? It relies on philosophy (and perhaps now science) to answer questions on ethics. It doesn’t rely on authority from leaders, revelation or scripture. It entails humans thinking about how to solve problems using shared methods that anyone with training can employ. And doesn’t this indicate that the answers produced by humanism have nothing to do with the supernatural?


  21. Michael, actually, quite the opposite: humanism began within a clearly religious matrix, particularly during the Renaissance. And still today there are a lot of religious humanists around. Hence the necessity of the modified “secular.”


  22. I think this is my fifth and final comment.

    SciSal said, “Right, I don’t think there is a difference” regarding an agnostic position in secular humanism. But it is clear from context that you are referring to your position on the existence of supernatural/transcendent, etc entities/beings. For I have followed you long enough to know that you have taken a position of agnosticism on other matters. You simply don’t think such a position is tenable in this particular case even while you seem to acknowledge the provisional nature of such positions.


  23. Brandholm – yes ‘usually’ would be better though I am not sure it is true most humanists sign up to it, and in any case the point remains: given controversial character and tangential nature to what really matters re secular humanism, so why even mention it?


  24. Thomas, actually you have another comment available, by my count. Right, there certainly are positions about which I am agnostic, like mathematical Platonism. But only when formulated within a naturalistic metaphysics. If they invoke the supernatural, I reject them. I hope that clarifies things a little.


  25. Humanism: “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters”

    The above pithy definition of humanism, secular or otherwise, is very attractive since it is open and flexible. Each interested individual can bring to the project their insights on the matter.

    Stephen Law’s outline runs into trouble because it is too specific and will be analyzed from all directions and torn apart.

    “Humanists place particular emphasis on the role of science and reason” – what about art and literature? Religion? Scientists and philosophers will definitely be happy, the vast bulk of humanity maybe not so much.

    “Humanists are atheists” – really! I would guess that the vast majority of humans today and before have experienced and accepted religious feelings. Religion is an humanism, contradictory as that may sound. Rather than deny this aspect of humanity it is better to deal with it and to civilize it. Furthermore, in order for them to oppose a theory such as theism, we must presume that those secular humanists have dispositive information on this supernatural question that they have not shared with the rest of us. Perhaps, and more likely, they have not had the mental acuity to peer into the abyss and therefore do not recognize the issue as a legitimate question.

    “Humanists usually believe in the existence and importance of moral value.” Who doesn’t? There are large numbers of miscreants that flaunt morality, but that is another matter.

    Humanists should have the courage of their convictions and sign up to naturalism. Consciousness, moral values and mathematical ‘truth’ seem readily explainable but will be controversial for a while, I agree.

    I definitely regard myself as an humanist but I am not sure I want to join the club.


  26. Hi Massimo,

    I’m not sure that Plato´s inquiry about the Demiurge is supernatural, to me Plato wasn’t only a philosopher but a wise man. The difference isn’t trivial because wisdom requires a hard work on oneself throughout the entire life and not all philosophers do this work on themselves. That said, we shouldn’t discard that Plato made an empirical, natural and realistic investigation about what is behind and around the Demiurge. In fact, the bunch of metaphors and images that Plato used to portrait the Demiurge ─ worker, craftsman, artifex, builder, etc, ─ don’t seem supernatural and metaphysical descriptions but rather natural and realistic images. So to me this is an open question, and, consequently, I don’t share the common opinions regarding this topic that explain it like simple speculation.


  27. No, I’m clear on your position. I just don’t think it overcomes/defeats Robin’s or Law’s. To those who share your position, the phrase “secular priest” is an oxymoron; to theists it is not. I think I appreciate both yours and Law’s positions here. More difficult would be excluding someone like Ayn Rand or Nietzsche from the secular humanist sign up. I know it can be argued, but more problematic is perhaps the underlying presumption that this controversy is actually illusional since the non-secular by definition is off the table whether by Law or by Pigliucci. If this is the case, the only argument concerns what one means by a secular humanist viewpoint and what that entails. In terms of secular humanism, Law’s position is clearly directed by an accommodationist spirit (for lack of a better word).


  28. In the US, every believer who abides by the separation of church and state and engages in political debate without citing scripture or church officials is a secularist. Secularism isn’t so very weighty, except when it is construed as the position that all religious bodies must obey the law. But Prof. Law specifically excludes this. The choice between a thick or thin naturalism doesn’t seem nearly as important as the choice between a thick or a thin secularism. Or for that matter between a thin humanism that merely holds that human needs and values are dispositive, and a thick one that also include pacifism, social quietism and the belief that the so-called Western tradition is in fact the highest possible universal standard.

    Again, being an atheist does not guarantee skepticism about woo, nor does being a theist guarantee skepticism about other kinds of woo. What is problematic is the easy identification of the supernatural only with theism and unpopular fringe beliefs. It is not at all obvious that mathematical Platonism isn’t just popular woo. Whether the term naturalism can accommodate such popular forms of woo that it would be unpolitic to reject, or whether it would be safer not to raise the question at all doesn’t is what I think of as a factoid question. You are asked to decide what other people’s opinions are (or even might be!) and you can’t really know absent scientific polling, so you go with the agreed upon impression left by an arbitrary sample.


  29. Steven, as I think I wrote in my initial essay, there are distinct meaning of the term secularist: a secular society is not an atheist society, it is one in which, as you say, religious people abide by non-religious laws and practices. But a secular humanist is someone who rejects the supernatural (and therefore, in my mind, a “naturalist”).


  30. @Stephen You wrote “I beg to differ. Atheism certainly entails the sort of “thin” naturalism I am advocating.’

    So if someone doesn’t believe in any god but does believe in reincarnation what are they? It seems to me that even the thinest naturalism does not include reincarnation. If that person is being inconsistent please explain the inconsistency.


  31. js, reincarnation is a splendid example, as it is a case of supernaturalism that doesn’t necessarily requires gods. It still violates naturalism, so I still find that it doesn’t work well with a secular humanist perspetive.


  32. Stephen and Sci Sal

    I see no one has responded to my comment. Let me try to restate it again and suggest how we can come to agreement. 

    My proposal:

    My idea was that we can distinguish three secular humanisms that can do justice to all parties. Humanisms A. B. C.

    My idea, borrowed from Rawls is that for the kind of political issues that Stephen is concerned about we can have “overlapping consensus” on certain political and legal questions but the justifications for the judgements may differ. This is a political not metaphysical humanism.

    Basic humanism. Simply the rejection of god as a justifier for mind and morality. This is a commitment to a super-thin naturalism (negative naturalism.) even non-theist rationalists can agree with this.


    Comprehensive humanism. Here the task is to provide a coherent metaphysic, epistemology and ethics and political theory from a humanist perspective. 

    Summary: Naturalism for A is irrelevant. Naturalism for B is only a thin naturalism. Naturalism for C will be a serious (and in my view) the best candidate to give humanism a proper foundation but it has a rival. This task is one for philosophers to work out.

    Thus understood there is no conflict between you two




  33. Dear Massimo,

    See, this is what I don’t get: why and how would reincarnation violate naturalism? If the universe is simply set up in a way that every living thing has a spirit/soul-thingy that gets released upon death and then moved into the next embryo, what makes that not-nature? Conversely, if one were to talk to some hypothetical being in whose universe there is for some reason no oxidation, how would you react to them saying, “ah, you have magic in your universe because in ours it doesn’t work like that”?

    Really, I would be very grateful if somebody could just come up with a criterion that allows me to distinguish:

    (a) directly or indirectly observable objects and directly or indirectly observable processes exhibiting either a cause-effect or stochastic pattern that are ‘natural’, and

    (b) directly or indirectly observable objects and directly or indirectly observable processes exhibiting either a cause-effect or stochastic pattern that are ‘supernatural’.

    And I mean a criterion, not an example, because replying with “like demons or clairvoyance, for example” is merely evading the question unless one can explain why they aren’t as much part of nature as squirrels and gravity.

    The way this distinction is nonchalantly assumed to be meaningful in these discussions, it will sure be the case that there is such a criterion but that I am simply ignorant of it?


  34. I will approach this by exploring the definition of secular humanism.
    What’s secular? What’s humanism?

    What is a humanist? One would guess all humans are humanist, just as all birds ought to be birdist. Why would some humans not be humanist? How does that work?

    What characterizes a human being is superior thinking, in conjunction with superior tool making, and, in particular, superior culture (requiring language). Both are much better in humans than in all other species. That means human beings are able to elaborate causal chains, and a library of facts and moods which are true, and incomparably more appropriate than other animals.

    To be true, means that they fit what’s found in nature well enough for survival. Naturalism is the label to describe that. For example, the extremely mysterious Quantum Physics is part of naturalism. After all, it’s found in nature. So, by the way, are mathematics: 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact of nature (that’s all what cardinal theory says). As in Quantum Physics, or electromagnetism, in mathematics, we don’t know why, we just naturally observe, complex numbers at work.

    To be inhuman is to deny this. It is to pretend that causality, or nature, are not sufficient, and necessary, to explain all what is human.
    Instead, another notion is introduced: superstition. That is the mood that something stand above the observed world. The Gods.

    That element of arbitrariness enables oligarchies to implement their inhuman rule, by claiming it springs from higher powers (than those found in nature). Thus its perennial nature.

    The story of secularism is interesting. A “saeculum” was a period of time separating some rare celebrations in the Roman Republic. However, said lapse of time varied. Sometimes it was 100 years (as from the battle of Actium, great victory of Augustus, to the accession of Vespasian in 70 CE as Princeps, from acclamations of the Eastern armies). It came to mean, in later understanding, “the age” (one was living in, after a full replacement of the population).

    What does being of one’s age mean? It means one’s library of facts and causality is from the present age, and not one 13 centuries old (say). Thus, it came to mean, in France where it originated, that one did not believe in any (superstitious) religion, as they are all very old, and are contradicted by more recent observations and causality.

    So Massimo is, fundamentally, right. Yet, Law is also right, strategically speaking. It is counter-productive to not humor those who insist that nature as they understand it presently could not possibly explain everything. For example many mathematicians insist that 2 + 2 = 4 is a fact not of this world… Although they sure behave as if it were. To win them over, better entertain them with their self-aggrandizing illusion.


  35. Hi Coel,

    thanks for your answer!

    I’d suggest that “truth” is about the correspondence of a statement to reality, and that it is independent of human opinion. Truth is thus not “a thought”.

    Now let’s look at some of my options for a response:

    First of all, notice that you never confronted my “argument”, you simply “assumed” I was wrong and pointed to the correspondence theory of truth, so I could claim your response fails.

    I could also poke at correspondence theory and claim it’s not clear whether it can handle counterfactuals, so it fails.

    Or I claim that correspondence needs to be judged by a mind, so “truth” is a “thought” after all and your response fails.

    Or I point out that it is at the very least mysterious how to physically make sense of correspondence (what physical force can connect a statement with a state o affairs?) therefore it defeats physicalism and since you seem to hold to physicalism you contradict yourself.

    It seems to me that either of these responses could send us on a goose chase around quite complex topics in philosophy that would only distract from the fact that I started out with a straightforward category mistake.

    But, in general, I find it interesting that you think that your answer suffices. While when posters pointed you to utilitarianism or deontology as ways to make sense of moral realism, you felt that your “argument” was unaddressed.

    So let me try it: According to utilitarianism moral values are those principles of behavior that (tend to) increase well-being for the sentient beings involved in a social interaction.

    Even if you do not agree with the above you should agree that moral values such as “honesty” and “fairness” are not “thoughts”.

    You suggest that I’m phrasing this badly. OK, maybe I am. How do you suggest that I phrase it?

    Well, that certainly depends what you want to know about (a certain form of) moral realism. A good start, in my opinion, would be to drop talk of moral values hanging in some Platonic realm, since nobody seems to hold that view nor is it typically considered to be necessary for moral realism.

    Questions that pertain to moral realism that seem reasonable and important to me (yet I am not a philosopher) are: “Can a moral statement be true or false and what would that mean?” and “Are there facts of the matter that could make a moral statement true or false and which could that be?” Of course this will lead very far away from the topic of the post.


  36. Michael,
    Your classification is an interesting one. It is a classification that extends along a naturalism dimension, with varying degrees of pragmatism, whereas I used an ethical dimension in my description of humanism. Aravis similarly subscribed to an ethical dimension centred on inviolable human dignity.

    Liam Ubert gave the more generalised definition of humanism and pointed out the contradiction of defining humanism as centred on science. Massimo reminded us that humanism has its cultural roots in the Renaissance.

    This all indicates how flexibly the concept of humanism can be adapted to different purposes. What the debate comes down to is purpose or motivation and we have different motivations in evidence in the discussion. Steven Law’s motivation was pragmatic while Massimo’s motivation was that of a purist, anxious to provide a sound intellectual foundation. Which is exactly what we would expect of such a careful philosopher.

    I think there is another motivation underlying the position of ‘secular humanism’, as understood in this article. This is the desire to construct a socially respectable, intellectually sound, body of atheist thought as the foundation of an atheist movement that can be taken seriously by society. It is a reaction against and move away from the disreputable tactics used by New Atheism, with its shallow intellectual foundation. Nobody likes attack dogs, as the polls show.

    I approve, which will surprise anyone who knows I am a devout Catholic. I approve because we all win when we retreat from hate and anger and return to intelligent discussion. I think secular humanism can make a sound case which is worth serious appraisal. The same can’t be said of New Atheism.

    My approval is tinged with sadness. As I said in my earlier comments, I would have liked to see a much stronger ethical motivation, placing it front and centre stage. That would have given secular humanism a vital social goal that would win universal approval. It would serve another purpose, that of energising the movement. For any movement to succeed it needs powerful emotions that drive it. The motivation and accompanying emotions need to be positive and life affirming, unlike New Atheism which was primarily negative and destructive. This is important because the motivation and emotional drive serve to attract different kinds of people to the movement. New Atheism attracts the malcontents which makes it a self limiting movement. Secular humanism with a strong ethical motivation would attract both the thoughtful and the caring people, giving it a broad base and a stronger voice in society.


  37. Reincarnation is an interesting case. Should belief in it exclude you from SH? I suspect this is a borderline case. Belief in it may involve belief in supernatural agency, like angels, etc (i.e. we are ourselves such non-natural agents which can be re-embodied) which I myself already ruled out from SH, notice. Or it may not (notice that a naturalistic version of belief in reincarnation is even possible, on which aliens bring us back with new bodies using supertechnology: would discovering this is actually true refute SH? Surely not). There are inevitably going to be grey areas however we draw the boundaries of SH. I’m just saying a commitment to cross-the board naturalism should not be a requirement.


  38. Stephen,

    I think you are right, we are into diminishing returns territory, but it has been a great exchange, thanks for participating!

    “This makes it sound like you suppose atheism is logically equivalent to naturalism. Each entails the other. … at the same time you seem to want to make naturalism stronger than atheism. You want to make it say something about the nature of mathematical, moral, and mental facts”

    Not really: the only thing that thin naturalism says about math, moral and minds is the same that it says about gods. There are no supernatural entities or realm. Nothing more.

    “atheism – even strong atheism (no gods) – does not directly entail anything about such facts”

    Well, atheism entails precisely nothing other than the negation of gods. But we are talking about secular humanism, not just atheism. The way I see it, atheism is a simple (negative) metaphysical statement, nothing else. To build a philosophy out of it you need other things, like a progressive politics, a robust concept of human rights, and so on. And you need a positive metaphysics as well.

    “So – is naturalism equivalent to atheism or not?”

    I see it as a subset: if you are an atheist then you are a naturalist. But naturalism is a broader concept. Just like secular humanism is a broader concept than atheism.

    “according to you, your brand of naturalism isn’t controversial for non-theists. Yet around 1/3 of non-theist philosophers fail to sign up to naturalism”

    See, this is were you fall back on equivocating: the kind of naturalism that is controversial among philosophers is most certainly *not* thin naturalism! Going back and forth between the two simply confuses things and makes it look like our disagreement is more substantial than I believe it actually is.

    “It’s an irrelevant philosophical sideshow so far as most secular humanists are concerned, who are primarily concerned with giving voice to non-religious, fighting for secularism, correcting myths about non-religious being amoral degenerates who strip life of meaning, poisonous theocracies”

    Irrelevant? On what grounds are we going to fight ethical battles if we don’t have a positive concept of morality? On what grounds are we going to discard notions like souls and afterlife is we don’t have a robust concept of minds? (As I said, math is really besides the point…)

    “notice that a naturalistic version of belief in reincarnation is even possible, on which aliens bring us back with new bodies using supertechnology: would discovering this is actually true refute SH? Surely not”

    But that is most definitely *not* what people mean when they think of reincarnation. The concept is very much religious and supernatural. I know a number of people on this forum have a problem with the alleged vagueness of the term supernatural (unlike, apparently, billions more who believe in it), but I take a minimalist Humean approach to it: if it involves miracles, i.e., the suspension of the laws of nature, then it is supernatural. Alien supertechnologies, by definition, wouldn’t be miracles (though they may appear so to an unsophisticated civilization, Clarke’s Third Law etc.).


    in response to your question: A is simply progressive politics, one doesn’t even need to be an atheist, let alone a humanist, to embrace it; B is atheism (a more restrictive notion than humanism); C is secular humanism as it has understood throughout the 20th century, for instance by founding figures of the movement like Felix Adler (the founder of Ethical Culture) and the writers of the various versions of the Humanist Manifesto, such as Paul Kurtz.


    “why and how would reincarnation violate naturalism?”

    See my response to Stephen above.


  39. Hi miramaxime,

    According to utilitarianism moral values are those principles of behavior that (tend to) increase well-being for the sentient beings involved in a social interaction.

    I have a lot of sympathy for utilitarianism as both a descriptive account of human morals and as a system for humans to advocate to each other. However, I don’t see how it can establish moral realism (that is, moral prescriptions that are independent of human opinion).

    First, you need to establish a “well-being” function, which surely requires reference to subjective human preference. Further, you need to aggregate across people (or sentient beings), and the only prescriptions for that come from our opinions.

    But, more basically than that, let’s suppose we have established some aggregated well-being function that utilitarianism says we “should” maximise. But why “should” we maximise it? (And what does “should” in that question even mean?) Whence the imperative?

    One answer is: people want it and advocate it. That makes the system subjective, resting ultimately in human value judgement, and thus is anti-realist. Or we can answer along the lines that “people will be happiest if …”, which amounts to saying that the well-being function will be maximised if the well-being function is maximised.

    What other answer is there? That’s a genuine question, by the way, in that I really am baffled by moral realism. Which moral agent is prescribing this morality to humans? If we’re trying to get to this from pure reasoning, how do we do that without adding in human preferences and value judgements at the root of it?

    A good start, in my opinion, would be to drop talk of moral values hanging in some Platonic realm, since nobody seems to hold that view …

    Then what view do moral realists hold? My talk of “objective” morals as “hanging in some Platonic realm” is really a plea for moral realists to tell me what sensible notion they are actually arguing for.

    Hi Aravis,

    All the things that you praise about Western, *secular* society, are based on moral realist conceptions of normativity.

    I don’t agree with that claim. Psychologists tell us that a lot of what humans say about the reasons for their attitudes is a rationalised commentary, and not the actual basis for their attitudes. I see moral realism as a rationalisation, a commentary that can be replaced without much affecting actual morals.

    As in my previous comparison, atheists are often told that Western morals rest on theistic conceptions of normativity, and that, without that, morals and society will degenerate (“without God, all is permitted”). But, again, theism is really only a rationalisation, and it can be abandoned without loss.

    Nowadays we accept that crowd-sourcing political authority is as good as we can do (and that, while evidence and reason can inform people’s voting, they are not primary or normative). Similarly, crowd-sourcing moral authority will work; hankering after moral realism is misconceived.


  40. @Coel

    First, you need to establish a “well-being” function, which surely requires reference to subjective human preference. Further, you need to aggregate across people (or sentient beings), and the only prescriptions for that come from our opinions.

    When we discussed this offline, we established that there are normative functions that aren’t caused by human preferences. You’re back to disagreeing with that?


  41. Is a belief in superminds* a belief in supernatural things?

    * http://books.google.com/books/about/Superminds.html?id=LBVoDSnEVTIC
    Superminds are capable of processing information not only at and below the level of Turing machines (standard computers), but above that level (the “Turing Limit”), as information processing devices that have not yet been (and perhaps can never be) built, but have been mathematically specified; these devices are known as super-Turing machines or hypercomputers.
    Superminds: People Harness Hypercomputation, and More
    By Selmer Bringsjord, M. Zenzen


  42. For readers who may be confused or misled:

    1. Coel’s continued association of moral realism with Platonism and theism is mistaken. The overwhelming majority of moral realists are neither theists nor Platonists.

    2. That Coel cannot see how Utilitarians can explain why we should maximize utility doesn’t mean that they don’t have an explanation. Virtually every Utilitarian has such an account — in Mill’s case it is an appeal to a kind of “internal sanction”– but this is by no means the only one. Coel wonders “what other answer is there?” to which I would reply that for anyone who really want to know, the subject is well-discussed. Do your homework and then, we can discuss.

    3. That Coel is “baffled” by moral realism has no bearing on moral realism’s viability. That he asks “which moral agent is prescribing this morality to humans?” indicates that he conflates moral realism with divine command theories, which is fallacious. The overwhelming majority of moral realist theories do not have–or require–a moral commander. >

    4. With respect to Coel’s pleas to moral realists to tell him “what sensible notion they are actually arguing for,” there are as many answers as there are moral realists. Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, and Kant are a good starting point. If there are specific objections to their specific arguments, we can discuss them. Talk is good, but it must be educated talk. Discussing caricatures of positions, invented out of peoples’ imaginations is a waste of time.

    5. With respect to modern, Western civilization, Coel may “disagree” with me that our liberalism and our conception of human dignity and inviolability are based on a moral realist orientation, but this just reflects a basic ignorance of the political philosophy that undergirds Western nations. The social contract theorists–with the exception of Hobbes–were all moral realists, and the social contract theorist who had the greatest impact on Anglophone liberal democracy–John Locke–was the most morally realist of the bunch. For those who might complain that “this stuff is old!” the most influential contemporary social contract theorist–John Rawls–was also a moral realist.

    6. No one should think that the various moral realist ethical theories do not have problems. They do. And no one should think that moral realism itself, as a position, doesn’t have problems. It does. As I indicated, moral–and thus, normative–realism may require that we be able to make some sense of synthetic a priori knowledge, and though this is notoriously difficult, there have been some really interesting efforts to do so (I even provided links to some notable efforts in this direction). But this is all putting the cart before the horse. Way before we get to those more sophisticated discussions, we must first understand the basic subject-matter itself.

    7. Finally, it all may be unnecessary, from the standpoint of the current discussion. For one thing, it may be the case that we can find an emotivist, sentimentalist, or other subjectivist theory that can give a satisfying account of normativity and obligation and thus, provide our Humanism with the robust conception of human dignity and inviolability that it needs. For another, it is unclear that moral realism need be at odds with naturalism and thus, whether it need run afoul of even a purely secular Humanism.


  43. By the way, just so I am clear, I think it entirely appropriate that an organisation like CFI combines secular humanism with woo-scepticism (as it does, because CFI resulted from the merger of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). I sign up to both secular humanism and woo-scepticism, and they are related, of course. If naturalism = woo-scepticism (approaching paranormal claims critically and scientifically, not accepting on basis of anecdotal evidence, etc.) then sign me up. However if it means something hard-to-pin down concerning the nature of mathematical truth, don’t sign me up ‘cos I’m not then even sure what I’m signing up to, or even why it’s important I sign up to it given these other stances of mine.


  44. Hi Stephen Law, thanks for your reply… I know you have your hands full!

    “the point remains: given controversial character and tangential nature to what really matters re secular humanism, so why even mention it?”

    The controversial part I’m not so worried about especially if it is stated as “usually”. For example it is still not clear to me what is meant by “existence” of moral value. Depending on what that meant it could be something I would not agree with at all, but since it is “usually” I give it a pass.

    The sole reason I see to mention naturalism is to help define the “secular” in “secular humanism”. This is both for what we believe as well as defining how we will practice what we believe.

    I assume that at the very least secular humanists agree the works done to improve the human condition will have to be enacted according to naturalist principles, correct? Without that naturalist assumption, “praying” (not in the sense of to a god for help but perhaps as creating “positive energy” capable of producing real world effects) could be considered a valid practice of secular humanists.

    If you don’t have time to answer, don’t worry. I won’t assume I “won” on that point if you don’t. But if you have time I’d be interested in your take on how it defines our actions as well as theory.


  45. As I indicated, moral–and thus, normative–realism may require that we be able to make some sense of synthetic a priori knowledge

    Just to riff on that: there is a difference between normative and moral realism, and just about every one of Coel’s responses fails to distinguish the two. If there is a real source of normativity (what is “better” or “worse”), then we have *good reasons* to ground a moral theory in some function of that normative reality that we are able to approximate. So, for example, given normative realism, we have *good reasons* to adopt a utilitarian position, and the argument is either about the normative basis itself or about whether what is being optimized/approximated/maximized by the utilitarian formulation is the best thing to optimize/approximate/maximize.

    What Coel seems to be doing is to stop at opinions/feelings as if values just suddenly appeared at that point, without acknowledging that we can have good reasons to ground those opinions and feelings, just as we’d say we had good reasons for quitting smoking or eating better. And, as Aravis said, there are just about as many ways of approaching it (including – I think – naturalist ones) as there are normative realist philosophers.


  46. Aravis,
    Well, you may have given your disagreement with Coel more thought and effort than could be reasonably expected, given your opponent’s intransigence. However, your last post makes clear why the realist/anti-realist debate is irrelevant to the project of secular humanism, since however one gets there, the broad ethical position will be largely the same, presented in much the same language.
    Which leads me to make this comment:

    My posts here have been largely attempts to clarify the project of secular humanism, because I feel that if one accepts it or opposes it, one must understand it, as clearly both Stephen and Massimo do, or the sense of this discussion gets muddied. I support secular humanism, because I think its project, if successful, will leave us with a better world; but technically, I am not a member of the club, because of my own ethical commitments and the pessimistic view of human nature they derive from. I say that, because it’s important to recognize that one can be a supporter without being a joiner. And I note that because, on reviewing your last post especially, it must be said that, while you are clearly a secularist, and your ethics are humanist, and you may also be a supporter of secular humanist causes, you are probably *not* a “secular humanist” in the sense that Massimo and Stephen have been discussing. As I noted briefly before, all Manifestos and Declarations of various secular humanist associations come “with a lot of ‘oughts’.”

    From the Amsterdam Declaration, IHEU: “Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.”

    Beyond “needing no external sanction,” there’s not much here your position can allow you to accept, without considerable hair-splitting. I am sure you can give us an explanation or description of a process that would get us there, but you can’t possibly sign on to this, given your complaints against of normativity, “oughts,” and irreducible ethical principles.

    It’s unclear why you posted your ethical explanations here, since they don’t have much to do with the matter at hand. These articles formed a moment when much could be learned about the secular humanist project and its foundations. Instead, you have tried to engage the realist/anti-realist debate, which is technically irrelevant to it.

    I have learned something from your posting here, and from commentators’ responses to it. But I wish that before commenting on an argument you would first investigate the terms argued. There’s little point finding two people discussing which flavor ice cream to buy and interrupting them to argue which flavor shortcake to put it on – especially if they already have their shortcake.


  47. Looks like I’m using up my last comment replying to Aravis:

    Coel’s continued association of moral realism with Platonism and theism is mistaken.

    As I said, doing that is mainly an (unsuccessful) attempt to smoke out any actual alternatives.

    That Coel cannot see how … in Mill’s case it is an appeal to a kind of “internal sanction” …

    Coel will quote Mill’s Utilitarianism:

    “The internal sanction of duty, whatever our standard of duty may be, is one and the same — a feeling in our own mind […] Its binding force, however, consists in the existence of a mass of feeling […] The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, …”

    Coel thinks that this is entirely in accord with what he’s been saying, that any normativity in utilitarianism has to derive, ultimately, from “a subjective feeling in our own minds”, and thus that utilitarianism does not give us moral realism. The same applies to all other flavours of utilitarianism, such as Peter Singer’s. Similarly, Kant’s appeal to an intrinsic dignity of people is also an appeal to a human value judgement (since “dignity” is a human value judgement).

    Mill also goes on to say, as I have done, that, contrary to Aravis’s assertions, accepting morality as subjective does not destroy it:

    “There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves,” is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only. But … [various arguments for why it makes no difference, see link]”.

    That Coel is “baffled” by moral realism has no bearing on moral realism’s viability.

    Coel is sticking to the point that no-one has pointed to any viable alternative to human value judgements as an anchor for ethics, and that without that moral realism is not viable. Coel also notes that the only specific example that Aravis gave (Mill’s “internal sanction”) is anything but.

    Coel may “disagree” … but this just reflects a basic ignorance of the political philosophy that undergirds Western nations.

    Coel thinks that Aravis grossly overestimates the extent to which abstract theoretical notions such as “moral realism” actually influence and undergird Western nations. What actually influences people is an appeal to their values.

    Aravis’s version: {moral realism} => {political philosophy} => societal influence.

    Coel’s version: {individual and societal value judgements} {practical politics} {political philosophy} => abstracted to {moral realism}.


    If there is a real source of normativity (what is “better” or “worse”), …

    “Better” and “worse” are value judgements. Who is judging if not humans?

    By the way, I’ve repeatedly stated that evidence and reason can indeed strongly influence human feelings and values.


  48. Alexander, Stephen, others: I see nothing “borderline” about reincarnation; it’s premised on an immaterial, non-natural “thing,” whether a personal soul or an impersonalized life force, moving from one physical body to another. There’s simply ZERO testable, replicable evidence for such.

    On the aliens, I would not call that reincarnation; Stephen’s version of the idea seems to buy into Kurzweil-like ideas that “wetware” that is the physical substrate of a mind is fungible. (I would say “immaterial,” but thought that would be too confusing.) It’s logically valid, therefore theoretically possible that such is the case, but empirically? I highly, highly doubt it. Massimo speaks for me otherwise.

    And, this again is why a “thin” naturalism needs to be part of secular humanism. People who believe in reincarnation aren’t in my book of secular humanists.


    Coel, I think utilitarianism could logically be the basis for some sort of moral realism. It might be a situational ethics version of moral realism, but that would still be realistic. Practically, though, I totally agree with you. Homo sapiens isn’t omniscient and cannot adopt the “view from nowhere” that utilitarianism entails. Could a modified or attenuated version of utilitarianism be employed? Sure. Even among the world of professional philosophers, I don’t think all of them adhere 100 percent to one ethical school, let alone the maximally defined version of that school.


    That said, contra Aravis, Rawls’ ideas, if any, fall apart due to our lacking that “view from nowhere.” I’ve said his name and book before, but again, I recommend Walter Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice.” (Note: I am not, in general, a Nietzschean. So, in general, unless Aravis signs off on an “attenuated” utilitarianism, I can’t totally agree with him on this area. I do, totally, agree that no current moral realism is perfect.


    This is why I commented on ev psych and etholog previously. I don’t see their use prescriptively (no “is = ought”!) but descriptively, as the evolutionary basis of our morals, and the possible similarity of moral systems among our “closer” animal cousins, respectively.

    That said, if neuroscience is just in the Early Bronze Age, ev psych, even when done right, may still be in the tail end of the Neolithic. And social sciences like cultural anthropology can shed little real light on the time before the dawn of agricultural civilization.


    Michael Faulkner, sorry, but no. As I said, on something like reproductive choice, although there are also intramural divisions, the religious and the secular humanists are likely to be a dividing line. Even more on euthaniasia. That’s just for starters. So, your A&B, at least, are interconnected.


    Per secularist society vs. secular humanism, riffing on Massimo? Americans United for Separation of Church and State is an organization that fights for a more secular society in the US, especially vis-à-vis First Amendment issues.

    Its executive director is the Rev. Barry Lynn. He may indeed be a humanist, but he’s certainly not a secular humanist. https://www.au.org/about/people/barry-lynn-0

    500 words!


  49. Incidentally, those who bang on about how ‘humanism’ doesn’t mean atheist/agnostic remind me of those who similarly complain about gay people calling themselves ‘gay’ as the word actually means ‘merry’, ‘happy’ etc. which even non-homosexual people can be. New meanings emerge. They have in this case. Let’s move on.


  50. Stephen, I think that’s incorrect. The complaint in not using the modified “secular” is not just historical: there are plenty of people who consider themselves humanists, but are also religious. The case of Barry Lynn, the dynamic director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is one. Not to mention that Ethical Culture, clearly a humanist organization, also considers itself a religion…


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